One of my more recent pleasures has been to enjoy the BBC Series, The Last Kingdom, which takes place in tenth century England. It is inspired by Britain’s early history and is mesmerizing! When I heard Marilyn MacDonald speak on Kings Arthur and Alfred, I requested that she share her work with my Blog Readers.
Get ready for an early medieval treat! Thank you Marilyn!
England Under Arthur and Alfred
Written by guest contributor, Marilyn McDonald
The topic, “England Under Arthur and Alfred,” brings to mind words and images that at first seem fairly familiar. But further thought leads to the realization that this is unexplored territory to many of us. It’s another time–before dependable historic records; another place–with unfamiliar boundaries; and another people– with strange names and mystical powers. It’s a time of monarchs and myths. And it’s a part of the unfolding story of Western civilization. It’s a complex story –one that this report just begins to tell. So let’s look at this story–a story we’ll tell in three parts: England, Arthur, and Alfred,
“Once upon a time . . .” there was a place called England and kings called Arthur and Alfred. So begins the story.
Since every good story begins with a historical setting, we’ll start by looking at that and then examine those fascinating characters, Arthur and Alfred.
The historical setting for Arthur and Alfred is Anglo-Saxon Britain from 410 to 1066 AD–from the departure of Rome in the 5th century to the Norman conquest in the 11th century–a medieval period that has been called the Dark Ages.
Rome was linked to Britain from 46 AD to 410 AD when the Goths defeated Rome. Most of England and Wales, and for a short period southern Scotland, were governed by the Roman Empire. During that time, the Romans improved agriculture, urban planning, industrial production and architecture; and Christianity came to Britain. Hadrian’s Wall was built during this period as a defensive fortification.
Some Angles and Saxons came from northern Germany to Britain as mercenaries to defend against the Picts after Roman protection left. However, they mutinied around 442, and invasions of Britain by Angles and Saxons followed.
After the departure of the Romans, Britain lost Rome’s protection and also the interest of chroniclers who were more interested in writing about the fall of Rome than the events in Britain. Thus, the next 200 years lack records to document events during that period. Augustine of Canterbury’s arrival in Kent in 597 began a time of recording datable events and providing historical records–although many of these were biased and have questionable accuracy.
It’s not clear how many Britons would have been Christian when the pagan Anglo-Saxons arrived. Medieval legends speak of early Christian apostles such as Joseph of Aramathea bringing the gospel to Britain in the first century AD. It’s more likely that Christians arrived unnoticed in Britain in the late second century.
St. Germanus of Auxerre made two visits to Britain in 429 and 445 to fight Pelagianism. Pelagius was a British monk, (360-418) who advocated free will and denied the theory of original sin–in opposition to the doctrine of salvation by God’s grace alone advocated by Augustine of Hippo (354-430). After much conflict, Pelagianism was condemned by the Catholic church as a heresy. Many “Pelagian” beliefs continue to thrive today and are debated among Christians as “faith vs. works.”
In this setting of medieval Britain, King Arthur is a prominent character. The years AD 400-600 have been called “The Age of Arthur.” People sang songs and wrote poems about Arthur. He became a symbol of Christian rulers, national monarchy, and romantic nostalgia. But who was Arthur? Was he a real person? Did he really exist?
In actuality, there was not one Arthur, but many. There was the historical Arthur (some would say a mythological Arthur who was mistaken for a living person), a literary Arthur, and an Arthur portrayed in almost every artistic medium. The myth is that Arthur was a king–an exemplary Christian monarch with martial and political virtues. The facts are that we have no records referring to him as a king until later in the development of his legend. When he first appears in records he is called “leader of battles.” However, most medieval monarchs sought to imitate him and some tried to bring him into their genealogies.
The legendary Arthur developed as a figure of international interest largely through the popularity of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fanciful and imaginative 12th-century History of the Kings of Britain. In Geoffrey’s account, King Uther, a legendary king of sub-Roman Britain is the father of King Arthur. According to the legend, Uther fell in love with Igraine, the beautiful wife of the Duke Gorlois of Cornwall. Merlin, the wizard, magically disguises Uther to look like Gorlois, enabling Uther to enter the Cornish fortress Tintagel and rendezvous with Lady Igraine. Gorlois, Igraine’s husband, was killed in battle, and in due time, Ingraine, now married to Uther, gave birth to a boy named Arthur, who was given to Merlin to keep him safe. Tintagel is now named “King Arthur’s Castle,” and a tunnel underneath it is known as “Merlin’s Cave.”
In some tales and poems that date from before Geoffrey, Arthur appears as a great warrior defending Britain from human and supernatural enemies. Nennius, an 8th century monk wrote that Arthur killed 960 men at the Battle at Badon Hill. Historians who believe he existed see him as a ruler or military official and debate the extent of his authority. Dates of his life range from the second to the seventh centuries AD.
There are many, many strands in the tapestry of Arthurian legends–we’ll highlight just a few of them–Camelot, the search for the Holy Grail, and the Knights of the Round Table.
We can probably all sing this song from Lerner and Loewe’s Broadway musical, Camelot:
“Don’t let it be forgot,
That once there was a spot,
For one brief shining moment,
That was known as Camelot.”
In the Camelot myth, Arthur ruled Britain and was King of the Britons, living in Camelot–a many-towered castle, sometime in the Middle Ages. Most scholars believe that Camelot was the invention of a twelfth-century French poet. Archeologists searching for Arthur’s residence have found hillforts and military encampments, but nothing that resembles late medieval castles. After many searches, the location of Camelot still eludes, but its symbolism stays.
The Search for the Holy Grail
In Arthurian stories, magical objects played a part. There are many myths about the Holy Grail, but probably the most popular is the Christian legend The Chronicle of the History of the Grail written in 1200 by Burgundy poet Robert de Boron. This portrays the Grail as a relic with ties to Jesus, not as a pagan magical object. It traces the journey of the sacred vessel of the Last Supper from the Crucifixion to the arrival of Joseph of Arimathea, who is said to have caught Christ’s blood from the cross in the Grail and took the Grail on a journey that ended in Britain where the Fisher King guarded the Grail for generations. The Grail appeared briefly in Arthur’s court where it awed the knights who vowed to go in a quest for a year and a day until they found the Grail.
The Knights of the Round Table
Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur) by Sir Thomas Malory, first published in 1485, is one of the best-known works of Arthurian literature. It is a reworking of existing tales about the legendary King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin, and the Knights of the Round Table. Malory’s actual title for the work was The Whole Book of King Arthur and His Noble Knights of the Round Table. A quotation from this book says, “Within a few years Arthur won all the north, Scotland, and all that were under their obeisance. Also Wales, a part of it, held against Arthur, but he overcame them all . . .through the noble prowess of himself and his knights of the Round Table.”
The Order of the Round Table came to represent all that was most noble in medieval chivalry, protection of the weak, and service to the king. Its knights became subjects of their own tales.
The legends of Arthur continued through the years in literature, music, art, comics, and popular culture. Tennyson, Wagner, Mark Twain, and others portrayed Arthur in Idylls of the King, Tristan and Isolde, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Monte Python and the Holy Grail, and Dungeons and Dragons. King Arthur may or may not have actually lived in Medieval England, but his legends and their influence still live today.
One week ago, I opened a recent Max Lucado book and did a double-take when I saw in the dedication “. . .Friend, mentor. Part Merlin, More Arthur. For a trio of years, we saw sprinkles of Camelot.”
King Alfred the Great
The BBC conducted a poll in 2001 to name the greatest Briton. King Alfred, a 9th century monarch, was the only king to make the top 20. Also, he is the only English sovereign to be called “the Great” –in spite of the fact that he was never king over all of England. What accounts for Alfred’s popularity? Fact and fantasy are bound together in the story of Alfred. However, unlike Arthur, Alfred did exist.
David Horspool said there are 3 reasons why Alfred is remembered and admired.
- The large amount of contemporary material.
- Alfred’s personality. He was an appealing, intelligent, complex, and remarkable man.
- The name “The Great”. Historians treat him as great.
Alfred’s fame comes not only from his many accomplishments or his unique character. It also comes from legends and stories that survived and were adapted in the succeeding years. These began with Asser, his first biographer.
Asser told the legend of the burnt cakes, a legend that persists. In it, Alfred took refuge from the invading Danes in a cowherd’s hovel–alone and incognito. The cowherd’s wife asked him to watch the cakes baking in the ashes of the fire. Charles Dickens tells the story this way: “ being at work on his bow and arrows, with which he hoped to punish the false Danes when a brighter time should come, and thinking deeply of his poor unhappy subjects whom the Danes chased through the land, his noble mind forgot the cakes, and they were burnt. ‘What!’ said the cowherd’s wife. . .you will be ready enough to eat them by-and-by, and yet you cannot watch them, idle dog?”
Winston Churchill called this tale one of the “gleaming toys of history.” It’s an example of the embellishment of historical stories by poets, novelists, painters, and politicians. Some of the many legends about Alfred gained popularity and became part of the national identity. One example of this is the rousing “Rule Britannia” chorus from an 18th century play called Alfred: A Masque that remains embedded in British tradition to this day.
Stories have a lasting quality, and it’s likely that the burnt cakes and “Rule Britannia” may have helped Alfred get to the BBC’s top 20. Its unlikely that the voters were thinking of his victory at Edington or his organizational skills when they cast their ballots.
Alfred was born in 849 to the most important Anglo-Saxon family in England. He was the 5th son of Æthelwulf, king of Wessex, and Osburh, his mother, who died when Alfred was young. Wessex became the strongest Anglo-Saxon kingdom under Alfred’s grandfather Egbert in the early 9th century. Much younger than his older brothers, in 853 4-year-old Alfred visited Rome without his parents. There Pope Leo IV annointed him as king and received him as an adoptive son. This link between Rome and Wessex was a bond that Alfred felt for the rest of his life. Two years later, Alfred and his father went to Rome for a year to visit the holy sites and to connect with Pope Benedict III who succeeded Pope Leo IV that year. Enroute back to Wessex from Rome, they went to Francia to the court of Charles the Bald, where the widowed Æthelwulf, Alfred’s father, married Judith, the 12-year-old daughter of Charles the Bald and great-granddaughter of Charlemagne.
Æthelwulf died 2 years after returing to Wessex. His oldest son had died in battle earlier, so the throne went to his second son, greedy Æthelbald who promptly married Judith his 14-year-old stepmother, then died not long after the wedding. Æthelberht, the next-in-line died after a short reign and the throne passed to Æthelred. At this time, Alfred married Ealswith from a prominent family in Mercia. It was a lifetime marriage with two sons and 3 daughters.
The Vikings, sometimes called Danes, were seafarers from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark whose raids and subsequent settlements significantly impacted the cultures of Europe. The Vikings were all Scandinavian but not all Scandinavians were Vikings. The term Viking applied only to those who took to the sea for the purpose of acquiring wealth by raiding in other lands.
The first Viking raids on the British Isles were in the late 8th century–mainly on churches and monestaries which were undefended centers of wealth. In 865 the pagan Vikings mounted a full scale invasion with well-trained, vicious troops. Within ten years, nearly all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms fell to the invaders: Northumbria in 867, East Anglia in 869, and nearly all of Mercia by 877. Only the kingdom of Wessex was able to survive. Battles ensued as the men of Wessex defended their kingdom–often losing.
The Battle of Ashdown in 871 is one of the notable confrontations. Tradition identifies the location with what is now known as White horse Hill near the Iron Age fortress of Uffington Castle. The chalk outline of a galoping white horse may have been cut into the hillside as early as 1000 BC. Legends of King Arthur, Saint George, and Alfred the Great are all claimed by the white horse. The Ashdown battle plan of Alfred and his older brother King Æthelred was to divide their troops and approach the Vikings from different flanks. When it was time to attack, Alfred and his troops were ready to face the enemy, but Æthelred and his troops were not there. He had gone to pray before battle and lingered in prayer too long. Alfred was faced with retreating or fighting with only his troops, so he commanded them to form the shieldwall and meet the powerful Vikings without Æthelred’s troops.
Alfred fought shoulder to shoulder with his troops, initially getting the upperhand, but then the Vikings began to push them back. Amidst the furious fighting, Alfred saw the Vikings suddenly turn and retreat in panic. Reinforcements had arrived–King Æthelred had finished his prayers! His unplanned late arrival with fresh troops turned the tide and thousands of Vikings fled in defeat. However, the retreat was only temporary and the Vikings attacked again. Æthelred was gravely wounded and died.
Now, the only surviving son, Alfred assumed the crown and the heavy responsibilities of leading and defending Wessex. The year was 871.
The Vikings continued to rampage and plunder with fresh recruits. Alfred’s army was depleted –not only by the casualties of battle, but also by the clumsy and inefficient Anglo-Saxon military structure called the fyrd, a voluntary ad hoc militia that depended on the land-owning noblemen providing men from their shires to fight for the king. It was not a standing army and could take weeks to call and assemble. Men often dropped out of the fyrd when their shire was safe, when they needed to protect their families, or when crops needed planting or harvesting. Wessex put up stronger resistance than the other Saxon kingdoms, but Alfred couldn’t overcome them. He made a deal with the Vikings and paid them a large sum of money in exchange for their withdrawal from Wessex. The payment was known as danegeld, a ransom paid for peace. Many years later, Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem that warned of the consequences of danegeld.
Dane-geld, Rudyard Kipling
It is always a temptation to an armed and agile nation
To call upon a neighbour and to say:
“We invaded you last night–we are quite
prepared to fight,
Unless you pay us cash to go away.”
And that is called asking for Dane-geld,
And the people who ask it explain
That you’ve only to pay’em the Dane-geld
And then you’ll get rid of the Dane!
It is always a temptation to a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say:
“Though we know we should defeat you, we have
not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away.”
And that is called paying the Dane-geld:
But we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.
Alfred’s danegeld decision required him to raise a great amount of money for the payment through large, unreasonable taxation from the people. The churches were most affected by the tax because they had the most wealth. Danegeld peace did not last; the Danes, now led by powerful Guthrum, renigued on their danegeld pledge and attacked Wessex again and again. Alfred faced his darkest days. Many thought Wessex would be destroyed, but Alfred refused to abandon his kingdom and hid in a location where he could wage guerrilla war. Many tales of his bravery and leadership came from this time, including the burnt cakes tale.
Knowing that Wessex and the other southern shires must remain free of Guthrum’s grip, Alfred secretly communicated with his allies and planned an attack on Guthrum on Whitsunday in 878. The battle, known as the Battle of Edington, was fierce and brutal; Guthrum and his Danes were defeated and begged for mercy. The Vikings had a reputation for gruesome killings of Anglo-Saxon leaders who lost in battle to them. However, Alfred did not retaliate in kind. He not only granted pagan Guthrum mercy, but as part of the surrender settlement, insisted that Guthrum be handed over to the Christian God and baptized. Guthrum agreed, and at a small church in the village of Aller, he pronounced his faith in Jesus Christ; the priest immersed his head three times in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and he received a new name. He was now called Æthelstan, godson of King Alfred.
Then Alfred treated his godson, along with 30 of his Danish companions to 12 days of feasting and gifts. Alfred wanted to bring a lasting peace between Wessex and the invading Danes by bringing them into the church and into his home. After staying in Wessex for several months, Aethelstan returned north and ruled Mercia. Other Vikings continued to attack and plunder, but Aethelstan stayed true to the vows of his baptism and ruled over East Anglia as a Christian king.
King Alfred’s Accomplishments
- Military Restructuring
Alfred knew that the Wessex military must be restructuredin order to respond to the swift, strong Viking troops. To do this, he divided into halves the entire Wessex fyrd/militia. This left each town with half of their combat-eligible men providing military service and half overseeing work in the fields and other necessary chores. He divided the new standing army into two sections. One became a highly mobile army required to provide their own horses and food for sixty days. The other section was to guard a collection of fortified cities and towns spaced evenly across Wessex. Next, Alfred ordered each of these cities fortified with a defensive wall. The construction of these defenses transformed a city into a burh, the Anglo-Saxon word meaning a fortilfied dwelling. Many English towns still carry remnants of this in their names–bourgh or bury indicate their former classification as a burh.
Alfred created a formula for coordinating the size of a burh’s wall with the number of men needed to defend that wall and the amount of surrounding farmland necessary to support such a force
The network of roads and public places inside the walls were reworked to ensure swift movement of troops across the city. Each burh had one wide street across the diameter, the “high” street, smaller streets parallel or at right angles, and another street along the perimeter of the wall. This new system of safety and streets led to the growth of trade and industry.
Alfred also undertook a major renovation of the Saxon currency. The number of Wessex mints quadrupled and the new silver pennies were almost pure silver. He introduced the half-penny, giving merchants the ability to more conveniently sell smaller items. These innovations had a tremendous impact on the economy of Wessex.
King Alfred played a role in the origins of the English naval forces by ordering construction of a fleet of Saxon ships designed to a new set of specifications and by recruiting experienced sailors from the continent to train his new navy. Although the title is contested by military historians, some call Alfred “the Father of England’s navy.”
As Alfred contemplated ways to strengthen his kingdom, he searched history and saw that there was a time when the Anglo-Saxon tribes faithfully worshipped God with a vibrant and fruitful faith. Monestaries were filled with men who were eager to lean to read and write in their native tongue and also in Latin. However, the English church grew indolent and lethargic during the two centuries prior to the time of Alfred. It was almost impossible to find a churchman who could understand the Latin language. England, through intellectual lethargy, was slowly devolving into a pagan nation. Alfred concluded that this lethargic apostacy was the cause of the fall of various Anglo-Saxon nations. He determined that to be successful against the plundering Vikings, Wessex must devote itself to a revival of Christian learning and worship.
Recognizing his own inadequate education and the ignorance throughout his kingdom, Alfred moved to educate himself and his subjects. He introduced the radical idea that Christian learning should not be only for monks and priests. His goal was literacy for all of his subjects, so he aimed for fluency in the vernacular of his people.
He gathered the best scholars who would come to Wessex. Four scholars served as Alfred’s personal readers. They read to him and discussed as many of the great works of Christendom as he could obtain. Alfred soon learned to read and translate Latin texts for himself. Schools for Anglo-Saxon children were established throughout Wessex. Rewards were given to those who became literate.
Books were needed for the newly trained minds, so Alfred and his scholars translated into Anglo-Saxon works of Christendom that Alfred considered most necessary for all men to know. He personally translated Pastoral Care by Gregory the Great, The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, the Soliloquies of Augustina, and the first fifty psalms of the Bible from Latin into the Wessex vernacular.
Producing the translated works brought about a thriving enterprise that included copyists, producers of vellum, and illustrators. A small fortune went into the production of each volume.
To accompany his translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care that was given to the bishops, Albert commissioned goldsmiths to make small gold place marker-pointer sticks called aestels. One of these was found in the 17th century in a muddy wheel rut near Athelney, the site of Alfred’s winter hideout. It is known as the Alfred Jewel and is on display in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. Its inscription reads, “Alfred ordered me to be made.”
After achieving a substantial degree of peace, Alfred sought to devote himself more fully to the service of God– beyond establishing monasteries, endowing churches, and providing books. He resolved to devote his strength and mind to God’s service for one-half of each day–spending this time in study and prayer. There were no clocks, so to accurately judge the time, he determined that 24 hours could be accurately measured by burning six candles end to end– each 12 inches in length made from candle wax with a weight equivalent to 72 pennies. Because the gusty wind sometimes made the candles burn faster, he invented a small lantern with sides made of thinly shaved ox-horn to control the speed of the candle burns, which he used for the rest of his life to faithfully fulfill his vow to devote his time to religious services.
But wait, there’s more! Alfred began a major reworking of the law codes and legal policies of the Anglo-Saxon nations. The lengthy preface included excerpts from the 10 Commandments, Old Testament laws, and the Sermon on the Mount and was followed by 120 laws (perhaps chosen to equal the age of Moses at his death). Many of these laws were collected from previlous Aglo-Saxon kings. By maintaining that justice must be an eternal principle handed down through Scripture and the legal codes of the land, Alfred established the framework for what would later be known as “common law”, the foundation for the legal system of England and its former colonies–including the United States.
After ruling twenty-eight and a half years, Alfred died in 899 at the age of 50. His son Edward, and his grandson Æthelstan in succession carried on his exemplary reign. Æthelstan is often referred to as the first king of England because all of England was first united under his reign. Alfred truly was the great king of of England.
This brief look at England under Arthur and Alfred fills me with awe and inspires me to close this report with Shakespeare’s words from Richard II:
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,–
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
William Shakespeare, “King Richard II”, Act 2 scene 1
Greatest English dramatist & poet (1564 – 1616)
[References include: Exploring the World of King Arthur, Christopher Snyder; The White Horse King; The Life of Alfred the Great, Benjamin Merkle; King Alfred: Burnt Cakes and Other Legends, David Horspool; Dark Age Britain: Sources of History, Henry Marsh; Wikipedia]
Marilyn loves to learn and teach. Her teaching background includes middle school, college, and adult classes. Various writing projects extend her learning and teaching — and sometimes give the opportunity for public speaking.